Matt Williams prides himself on moving on. After bad games or decisions, he quickly brushes them aside and his attention turns to the next challenge. The Nationals, however, are in a dire situation, trailing the Giants, 2-0, in the NLDS with Game 3 on Monday in San Francisco. The plane ride here after a gut-wrenching, 18-inning loss was long but it gave players and coaches a chance to dissect the previous two games and figure out what needs to improve.
Williams, too, was part of the introspection. One decision gnawed at him during the cross-country, red-eye flight: his much-debated removal of Jordan Zimmermann with two out in the ninth inning of Game 2 after Zimmermann issued his first walk of the game and his insertion of closer Drew Storen, who blew the save after allowing hits to Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval.
“Any time you make a decision on something and it doesn’t work, you kick yourself,” Williams said on Sunday. “I kicked myself all night. That’s human nature.”
Although Williams wasn’t happy with the results, he was still comfortable with the reasoning behind the decision-making. And a day after the decision, he offered a more lengthy and detailed explanation for his actions. In his own words:
“We also have a reason for that move. The reason for that move, as I explained last night, was Buster missed a breaking ball on him, hit a deep fly ball to right field on a fastball, hit a first-pitch slider and lined it to third base that Anthony Rendon made a great play on. All of those things go into the decision.
“To say, ‘Okay, we need Drew ready for the Buster.” If we get there, one, we gave Jordan the opportunity to go out there and complete the game. But knowing that if he gets in trouble, that we have our closer up and available and ready. That’s standard practice.
“You kick yourself any time it doesn’t work. However, you have to put your guys in a position to do their jobs and do what they do. So that being said, I don’t have a problem with it. It didn’t work out. But we’ve got our best guy, who is the closer coming in to pick up the guy that just gave us all he had for eight and two-thirds.
“Now, could you say that it was the wrong move? Of course you can. You could say that. Could you say it was the right move? Yes, you could say that as a well. It didn’t work out. That being said, I kick myself for bringing Drew in and having him tie the game. Beyond that, we had nine more innings to win it.”
There are several layers to Williams’ explanation but they boil down to a handful of key points: 1) Williams wanted to give Zimmermann a chance at completing the game. His pitch count was only at 95 when he took the mound in the ninth and he had retired 20 straight batters before he walked Joe Panik. 2) Williams didn’t want Zimmermann to face Posey if he was in trouble. Although the results didn’t show it, Posey had hit the ball hard against Zimmermann. 3) Storen is the Nationals’ closer, has done exceptionally well in that role and Williams had all the confidence in him to get one more out.
The situation made sense for Storen. The right-hander was one of the best relievers in baseball this season and, undoubtedly, the best on the Nationals this season. Since taking over the job in early September, Storen was 10 for 10 in save situations. He also hadn’t allowed an earned run in 23 outings to end the season. Although Posey was 2 for 3 against Storen during his career, right-handers hit .184 against Storen this season.
An issue with Williams’ reasoning could be that he didn’t give Storen a chance to start the inning clean. It’s hard to ask a reliever to come in to a high-leverage situation with a runner on base. Storen has inherited 24 runners this season and allowed only 10 to score, a 42 percent success rate.
“I don’t want Drew coming into the game with first and second and two out,” Williams said. “I want to him the opportunity to get Posey. And he didn’t. And Sandoval hit a ball down the line. So, it happened. That’s baseball. What can you do about it except adjust from there and go on.”
Williams said Storen missed location with his sinker to Sandoval, leaving it over the plate too much. Pitch F/X shows the pitch was low and toward the outer half of the plate, and Sandoval simply flared it to left field for the game-changing RBI double.
“He just missed on one,” Williams said. “That’s what it is. He’s our closer. He’s been perfect in every situation we put him in since he’s been in that role exception of the last game he pitched. So we get in that situation tomorrow where we have the opportunity for him, we want him to get back out there and do what he does.”
Any ire with Williams about the decision could be misplaced. Williams has sound reasoning for bringing in Storen, a dominant right-handed reliever, in to face an exceptional right-handed batter to get the final out for a starter he felt was entering in a less-than-ideal matchup. It backfired. But there is also sound reasoning for leaving Zimmermann in. The playoffs are unique and perhaps breaking convention to leave Zimmermann in could have served the Nationals well. If the Nationals had lost either way — with Zimmermann or Storen on the mound — outcry for the other move would have been just as loud.